Mann, Charles C.: 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, by Charles C. Mann, is a fascinating, important, and extremely readable nonfiction book. It summarizes recent scholarship to argue that the general understanding of the Americas pre-Columbus is erroneous in three significant ways: first, the Americas were heavily populated prior to the introduction of European diseases (no empty Americas); second, the Americas were populated for far longer and by far more developed peoples than generally thought (no noble savages); and third, those peoples actively managed their environments on a large scale (no pristine wilderness). Mann clearly makes the case for each of these propositions, but also makes a point of presenting counterarguments in a way that, to my reading, does not rely on rhetorical tricks to minimize their force.

This is also a really fun book. Just the early section on the life of Tisquantum, usually known as “Squanto,” the friendly Indian who taught the Pilgrims how not to starve, would make an awesome standalone historical novella. Some of the other histories are, as Mann observes, downright Shakespearian. And Mann’s prose is clear, approachable, and lively.

I don’t read a lot of history or nonfiction but I was transfixed by this and think it has enough of interest to be enjoyed by almost everyone. And it convincingly and thoroughly presents its fundamental premise, that the inhabitants of the Americas before 1492 (and after!) were people just as the inhabitants of Europe were, and accordingly should be granted the same agency, judged by the same standards, and given as much attention as the people of Europe—which may sound self-evident when stated baldly, but as Mann highlights and a cursory examination of history and pop culture makes clear, is very far from being widely accepted.

Seriously, just read it.

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